“The valley of Lima where the city is located, is large and wide…. this province, like many others, is irrigated by waterways leading from the River, in which there is plentiful water for everyone, and sufficient to fertilise even more land.” Juan López de Velasco, Cosmógrafo de Indias, 1574.
Ten million people living on a coastal plain where it never rains – that is the paradox of Lima – the biggest desert city, some say, after Cairo, after Las Vegas. And yet there are green parks in every district.
If Google Earth’s timeline could go back a thousand years, it would show us the lands of present day Lima as a plain dotted with hundreds of temple mounds, Huacas, surrounded by farmland. Six or more major streams, dividing into streamlets, rivulets and irrigation ditches, take water from the River Rimac to fertile fields and villages from La Molina, San Borja and Surco down to Barranco and Chorrillos, San Isidro and Magdalena, Maranga and Callao.
All the large parks of Lima – the Parque de los Leyendas, the San Isidro Golf Course, the Jockey race track, Campo de Marte and Bosque el Olivar are still watered by these ancient canals. The Spanish built their city around the Plaza de Armas where a channel brought water to the several pyramids where now sit the Cathedral and the Presidential Palace. Nineteenth and early twentieth century pictures show the stream that flowed along the Western side of the Plaza de Armas.The ancient system of irrigation throughout the Rimac delta, providing water for farms, houses and Huacas before the Spanish arrived.
Flora Tristan, Gaugin`s aunt, visiting Lima in 1834, wrote “the streets, well delineated, are long and wide. Water runs through two ditches along almost all of them, one on each side. Just a few have a small stream in the centre. At the back of the houses is a kitchen and lodging for the slaves. It never rains.”
On the surface, much has changed. But underground a vast network of channels makes this desert city green, with hundreds of workers managing and adjusting the direction and speed of the flow to take water to each place at the appointed time.